Thursday, January 7, 2021

In Seattle, A Tough Back To School Choice

Seattle's school board made a decision, just a few weeks ago, to re-open face-to-face school for pre-K, kindergarten, some special ed, and 1st grade students. It's a good example of the kinds of re-opening challenges that parents and teachers are facing, the kind of thing that is being pushed out as a "plan" by a major district.

Parents received an e-mail inviting them to complete a "survey" and commit themselves to either continuing at-home instruction via computer, or sending their child back for in-person learning on March 1st.

The e-mail was sent out January 5th. The decision must be made by January 10th. 

The e-mail includes a link to a FAQ page that is not, well, as helpful as it might be. For one thing, the tone is perhaps not unpleasant, but certainly brusque. For instance, on the matter of the deadline.

Can I change my decision after March 1?

The decision a family makes by January 10 will continue through the end of the 2020-21 school year.

What if I change my mind before March 1?

January 10 is the deadline so staff can begin to finalize logistics and schedules. If you have completed the survey but change your mind prior to January 10, please retake the survey before the closing date.

Some of it is just unclear. If you were facing this decision, you'd probably want to know how many people your child would be sharing a classroom with, but the answer to the question "how large will the classes be" isn't really an answer:

Kindergarten and first grade classrooms will support a 1:15 teacher-student ratio.

Okay-- but a classroom with six hundred students and forty teachers would fit that criterium. Preschoolers are promised a maximum group size of 6-10.

Will classrooms of students interact during the day? "All classroom cohorts will stay together throughout the day," is, again, not actually an answer. Lunch will be eaten in the classroom. Classrooms will have less furniture, but will remain "joyful and engaging." The district is working with architectural firms to create "cohort zones." Some plexiglass shields are now installed in the offices. They're still trying to figure out phys ed class and other specials.

Testing? Well. no. SPS will do health screening by "attestation" which is fancy talk for "put everyone on the honor system" and also for "a clever way to cover the district's legal butt." The health screening will be some version of parents and staff filing a statement saying "I swear that I'm perfectly healthy, as far as I know." This won't help when someone is asymptomatic, but it will help if anybody tries to sue the district for creating spreading events.

Busing? Students will wear masks and the windows will be open or "adjusted as much as possible to maximize outside air flow." When the bus gets back to the main lot, it will be wiped down. 

Will teachers be vaccinated? Again, a non-answer answer that the state health department has scheduled teachers for Phase 2 vaccination. Will that be before March 1? Who knows. But the district will provide teachers with masks. 

Meanwhile, the district is hiring 80 more custodians and two cleaning services. Three times a day wipedowns of "high touch" surfaces. And they say they've done evaluations and upgrades on all the HVAC systems and filtration. 

So the plan is one part actual plan, and a few parts a stated intention to have a plan that meets certain criteria but which doesn't actually exist yet. And parents have until Sunday to decide if they're okay with this, or not. 

It has some gaping holes, and while many districts had the same gaping holes last March, school leaders should be getting smarter about this stuff. Like, what's the protocol if a teacher or student becomes symptomatic during the day? What's the protocol if a class or a member of a class has been exposed to someone who tests positive? What has the district done about the huge increased need for staffing? For instance, if one first grade class becomes two (one in the building and one distance), do they intend to do the right thing and have a separate teacher for each? What's the substitute teacher situation look like? And, of course, what if community spread is bad in Seattle on March 1 (and teachers haven't been vaccinated yet)?

It's not the worst plan I've seen. The district just up the road from me just decided to go back in the building full time starting next week, and if you want to talk about a plan that is not actually a plan and having no contingencies for anything, they're right on top of it. 

And the need for a firm commitment from parents is understandable from a planning perspective. But if parents change their minds after the deadline, it's not clear to me what a district could do or how they can win the inevitable lawsuits. Maybe that's why their answer to "what if I change my mind" is so vague and off-point--because they know the real answer is "If you change you're mind, we'll have to let you do it, but boy will it be a big pain in our institutional tush." And it looks like that tush is in some pain already. We'll see how it feels on January 11.

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